Life skills upgrade: focus

I have a confession to make: I have a very hard time focusing on things in general.  You may have noticed this, as it’s been several months since my last blog post.  (Case in point: After writing the previous sentence, I left this post to go check a minor point in my server’s configuration, looked at three config files, then did a Google search on how to modify them.  While my results loaded, I returned to this post.)

I’ve found some help for this problem, and I want to share it with you.  It came in the form of a book, simply titled “focus.”  The subtitle is: “A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction.”  Poignant? Yes.

I found the book from the great blog Lifehacker, which I then stopped reading on the advice of the book.  Irony abounds.

Anyway, the book is free.  Sort of.  It’s free for the free version (which is a .PDF-contained eBook), which you can download here: FREE GREAT BOOK HERE NOW SUPERLATIVE EXCLAMATION!  I have to confess, I read the free version first.  But it was so good that I actually went back and purchased the paid version of the book (which is also a .PDF-contained eBook) for 35 bucks.  The free version was worth way more than 35 bucks to me, which means that the full version is worth potentially more still.  Either way you choose to go, it’s a heckuva deal for the quality of the material.

Though the writing is intentionally clean and easy to read, this is not a book that you want to rush through.  I have tried to read it as part of a morningly working focus ritual.  Here’s how it works for me: I sit down at my desk, close all other programs, close the door and issue a stern warning to any who might be tempted to break my concentration, and breathe deeply a few times while I mindfully start reading.  At this point, I’ve gotten a lot of value out of the exercise before I even start reading the book!  When I read, I never read more than one chapter at a time.  I’m not really meditating, just reading mindfully, learning to focus and only do one thing.

This is one of several aids to productivity that have influenced my thinking about work in the past few years.  The other is the Getting Things Done methodology, pioneered and preached by David Allen.  Getting Things Done, or GTD in the parlance of us devotees, deserves its own blog post.  It probably deserves several, but I’ll leave that for another day.  Suffice it to say that this book, Focus, is influenced by and compatible with GTD.

So how has it gone for me?  Really well so far.  I wouldn’t be writing about it otherwise.  (I never would have gotten around to it.)  I’ve read the entire free version of the book once, and I’m now re-reading the full version of the book.  I don’t end up reading it every working morning, but I find that when I do invest a few minutes in the morning to focus, my entire day is VASTLY more productive.  As a matter of fact, if I’ve done any work for/with you in the past six months, you probably owe my participation partly to this book.

The format of Focus is very helpful, as well.  It’s not framed as a large, thought-provoking explanation of anything.  It doesn’t carry that kind of authoritative weight.  Instead, it’s a bunch of bite-sized chunks of useful tips and helpful practices.  There are sections with tips for parents, employees, managers, etc.  Most of the time, I’ve been able to read a chapter and walk away with a very small change to my day.  There’s been at least one occasion where I stopped reading mid-chapter, closed the book, and went on to implement something from that day’s chapter right away.

Anyway, I highly recommend it.  I’ll even buy you a copy of the free version if you’d like.  It’s at least that good.  Here’s the info:

focus : a simplicity manifesto in the age of distraction

author: Leo Babauta
price: free or $34.95

Pride and Prejudice AND ZOMBIES!

I tripped across this today whilst looking for new audio books. It’s an entire re-write of the classic novel (well and respectfully done, as far as I can see) to include Zombies, of all things. I listened to a sample, and was read by a young lady with an English accent (how appropriate) and included not over-liberal references to zombies. It’s real, it’s funny, and it’s real funny. I might not have picked Pride and Prejudice as a welcome candidate for remixing, but I’m sure glad someone did! The thematic contrast is an eyebrow-raiser at all levels.
Here’s a link: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!

What I’m reading now: July edition I

I’m reading three books concurrently.  I’ll give you some hints, but I want guesses from you, fair readers, as to the exact titles.


  • One of the books is new, while the other two are old.
  • I believe at least one book (possibly two) to be in the public domain.
  • I’m reading one in print (from a series printed by Barnes and Noble), one on my iPhone, and one as an audiobook.
  • One book is non-fiction, while the other two are works of fiction.

What other clues would you like?  The setting for the opening scenes for the works of fiction?  Some not-too-obivous plot detail? The titles worked into anagrams?  Just let me know!

Book Report: Mexifornia

What a book!  This one, written by Victor Davis Hanson, was alternately hard to read and fascinating.  It wasn’t hard to read in terms of reading level, though that may make the ideas in the book accessible to fewer people.  it was hard to read because of the raw honesty with which Hanson talks about issues of race and immigration.

As a small-town farmer and now university professor, he blasts what he terms the race industry for their tactics, which he claims serve only to further alienate those who are already aliens in California.  He waxes a bit nostalgic about his growing-up years and the approach to racial integration demonstrated by his early teachers.  But he also claims that the usually-ugly specter of modern lowest-common-denominator culture holds much promise for racial integration, even despite it’s otherwise putrid pallor.

As a classicist, Hanson offers a fascinating solution set, complete with alternate futures.  He’s wise enough to predict several outcomes, and because of this will probably be seen by history as prescient.

I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to debate or understand our public policy options with regard to illegal immigration.  At 150 pages, it’s almost short enough to be considered a long pamphlet.

Even if you judge this book by its cover, it still garners high marks.  The presentation and cover art are visually pleasing.

My two critiques:

  1. I think the writing style puts this book and its important message out of the grasp of some people.  The issues to debate will need all our minds and wills, and I’d hate to see these important thoughts lost because of the form they take.
  2. I’d like to see the author’s preferred solution set fleshed out a little more.  I guess this isn’t a policy platform, but a powerful discussion-starter.  I know that it goes a long way toward giving my future policy stance on illegal immigration a firm footing.

What am I thinking!?

Hi, Shinnfans. I know what you’re wondering. I know because I subtly implanted the question in your minds using the title of this blog post. You want to know what I’m thinking. If this was a play, here’s how the dialogue would pan out:

You (internally, maybe even a fleeting thought): “Andrew hasn’t been writing much lately. All he’s been doing is posting images and stupid little videos with internet babble or pictures that move too fast to be seen well.”

Me (Andrew): “Huh. Good point.” (Hangs mouth open, looking kind of dumb. Realizes audience is watching and quickly snaps into a brow-furrowing, hard-thinking expression.)

You: “Come on, why don’t you get right on that, do some thinking and reading, create some meaningful content, and give us something to either chew on, disagree with, or totally walk away from because it would require us to think too much.”

Me (Andrew): “Um, I’m kind of busy right now. Can I do that later?” (For a moment, that dumb look comes back.)

You: “No, we’re a demanding internet audience with short attention spans. If you don’t post good content at least once a day, we stop visiting. In fact, even this is getting kind of long. Can you wrap it up, please?”

Me: “Okay, how about a compromise? Can I tell you what I’m reading so you know what’s coming down the pike?”

You: “Hurry it up. Half of us stopped reading before your last line. The rest of us thought the phrase was, ‘What’s coming down the pipe.’ ”

Me: “You thought wrong, and I get to say so because it’s my blog. Pike in that usage refers to the old term for a road. Here’s my recent reading list, with comments:” </imaginary meta dialogue>

  • Mexifornia: A State of Becoming by Victor Davis Hanson. Really riveting reading. Tackles the question of how to approach illegal Mexican immigration. Heavily criticizes what Hanson terms the race industry. Hanson is a classicist, a professor at Fresno State, and a guy who grew up on a family farm in Selma, California, where he still lives.
  • Inside Today’s Mormonism by Richard Abanes. A little boring, this volume delves into the claims of Mormonism in pretty technical detail. I suppose the level of technical detail is necessary for the book to be authoritative.
  • In The Name of God: Understanding the Mindset of Terrorism by Timothy Demy and Gary P. Stewart. I just started this, and it seems like a pretty generic American defense of the War On Terror â„¢ and The Justness of Our Cause (also tm). Honestly, it takes a lot to impress me these days in a book about terrorism. I read the (dry) 9/11 Commission Report cover-to-cover. I’ve just started this, so it might end up better than it started. If it does, I’ll let you know. Both authors are military chaplains, and one (Timothy Demy) is an officer with whom I served in the Coast Guard.
  • The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Speaking of impressive (see previous paragraph), this book blows me away. I’m listening to the audio book form, but it’s a great tome on the long history of Al Qaeda’s major players and the conditions (both personal and political) that gave rise to the organization. Reading this book feels like taking a Master’s-level course in Middle Eastern politics. I briefly considered buying a copy on and sending it to the CIA. Our government needs the level of understanding displayed in this book. The research is thorough and extensive, while the retelling of the story seems journalistic in nature with very little editorial content and a refreshing lack of a discernible agenda. I highly recommend this book.

Just for fun, here are some past posts that cover my reactions to several dimensions of the subject of terrorism:

Book Review: Mere Christianity

Ed. note: I don’t feel adequate to even review a book by C.S. Lewis. For years I’ve considered the man a literary Everest.  After reading this book, I still feel that way.  But audacity has never slowed me much, so here goes:

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewsis garners a score of 5 (out of a possible 5) for importance of content, originality of thought, clarity, and skill of expression.  The first half of the book was given as a series of radio talks during World War 2 in Britain.  It’s a brilliant (and brilliantly simple) defense of theism in general and Christianity in particular; a cause plead as if to an unbelieving world.

Every section of the book has the peculiar quality of being at once relatable and theological; original and orthodox.  You feel as if Lewis is sitting on a porch with you appealing to the ordinary, sensible chap you feel yourself to be.  He’s strident in his appeals, but not so strident as to make you feel uncomfortable.  Lewis is an analogy-artist.

Each chapter is short and digestible (like bathroom reading-type short) and sufficiently small in its scope.

I picked this book up because it’s considered by many to be a must-read.  I must now number myself among those people.  You’re free to borrow my copy, but not for too long.  I’ll definitely be diving back in from time to time.

Book Review: The Martha Rules

Subtitle: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as you Start, Build, or Manage a Business. Written and published in 2005 by Martha Stewart.

The narrative for this book starts while Martha Stewart is in prison. She talks about some of the very determined ladies she met who wanted to get out of prison and start their own businesses. While in the clink, Martha wrote some business training for them that turned into this book.

It’s interesting to read a business book written by a gracious, driven, vicious, visionary entrepreneur. Anyone who had model, stock broker, caterer, CEO, and felon on her resume makes for a good read.

I found the business principles rather obvious and unsurprising, but no less solid for all that. She makes liberal use of examples from her constellation of business friends and associates. Case studies are always interesting to me. And, of course, she frequently referred to lessons from her own business experience.

In the end, any of us can only speak from our own experience. And that’s what I found so limiting about reading Martha’s rules for business. They work very well if you’re building a company like Martha has built. But like every product Martha produces that has her name on it, ultimately it’s just Martha and some very nice window dressing.

What Harry Potter taught me about the Bible

I have a confession to make, though it’s not a very dirty or juicy one:  I read the 7th Harry Potter book within 48 hours of its public release.  Furthermore, I confess that I enjoyed it.  And no, I’m not about to run out and join a Satanic cult, wear black eyeliner, or start casting silly spells.  (I know at least one of you wondered about that!)  In fact, I learned several lessons about the Bible while reading Harry Potter.  Raised your eyebrows, have I?  Well, follow along as I share the lessons:

1. How to read in context

In ‘Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows,’ the characters talk about a book that’s been written regarding their friend, Albus Dumbledore.  The book is largely lies, and it’s excerpted for a few pages of the larger work, the Harry Potter book.  If you would pick up the book and read those few pages, you’d get a totally inaccurate picture of the overall plot.  Similarly, if you read the Bible carelessly enough, you’ll find that it says there is no God.  A glance at the context, though, will tell you that this message isn’t the intent of the author.  What he really said looks more like, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ (Psalm 14:1)”.  I wonder how many people are savvy enough to pick up the context clues in the Harry Potter book but still insist on cherry-picking the Bible to make it match their pre-conceived notions?

2. The power of narrative

I read the Harry Potter book on the first weekend it came out.  That means I read all 784 pages in two days.  I wanted to finish the story before I went back to work on Monday, so I read it all day Saturday and Sunday.  This left me in the interesting position of going to church Sunday morning, right in the middle of my Harry Potter weekend.  The worship and the story of Christ and his sacrifice for me were so much more meaningful, and it’s because I was tuned into another deeply-felt narrative.  The themes of sacrifice, struggle, quest and the search for truth were close at hand, since I’d been treading those paths with J.K. Rowling’s novel all weekend.  It was easy for me to turn those thoughts to the cross and the ultimate struggle of good and evil.

It’s true that these themes are more read into the text than read out of it.  But such is the result of reading with a redeemed mind.  It’s not what Harry Potter brings to me, but what I bring to Harry Potter that shapes my conclusions.  That’s why I’m not scared to read Harry Potter or any other controversial material: because I read it with a redeemed and, hopefully, informed mind.

What am I reading?

So glad you asked! Here’s a little list of stuff I’m reading or have read recently. These include audio books. Let me know in the comments if you’d like a review of any of these books.

Book Report: The Joy Luck Club

I’m one of those people who hasn’t read many of the interesting books that pass for high school required reading.  The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is one such book.  Someone gave me a copy a few years ago and I put it on my shelf, thinking that someday I’d return to it.  Someday came a month or two ago.

The Joy Luck Club is a fascinating series of intertwining stories told by Chinese women who emigrated to the U.S. and their daughters.  The book asks the question, “What does it mean to be Chinese?” I think it’s a question that many second-generation immigrant children ask regarding their roots.  Though the answers vary widely, when asked together by many different people at the same time, it sounds like this: “What does it mean to be American?”

Joy Luck is a mind-bending view into the perspective of the Chinese mind.  Even having spent a summer in China, it was a glimpse that was totally unexpected.  I wish I would have read it before going to China to better understand the radical difference in worldview.

A recommended read.  4 out of 5 stars.